Settlement Patterns - Studying the Evolution of Societies

Settlement Patterns in Archaeology Are All About Living Together

Panoramic aerial view from on high of oldest town in Corfu - ancient mountain village of Old Perithia nestled in mountains, Greece
Panoramic aerial view from on high of oldest town in Corfu - ancient mountain village of Old Perithia nestled in mountains, Greece. Tim Graham / Getty Images Europe / Getty Images

In the scientific field of archaeology, the term "settlement pattern" refers to the evidence within a given region of the physical remnants of communities and networks. That evidence is used to interpret the way interdependent local groups of people interacted in the past. People have lived and interacted together for a very long time, and settlement patterns have been identified dating back to as long as humans have been on our planet.

Key Takeaways: Settlement Patterns

  • The study of settlement patterns in archaeology involves a set of techniques and analytical methods to examine the cultural past of a region. 
  • The method allows examination of sites in their contexts, as well as interconnectedness and change across time. 
  • Methods include surface survey assisted by aerial photography and LiDAR. 

Anthropological Underpinnings

Settlement pattern as a concept was developed by social geographers in the late 19th century. The term referred then to how people live across a given landscape, in particular, what resources (water, arable land, transportation networks) they chose to live by and how they connected with one another: and the term is still a current study in geography of all flavors.

According to American archaeologist Jeffrey Parsons, settlement patterns in anthropology began with the late 19th-century work of anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan who was interested in how modern Pueblo societies were organized. American anthropologist Julian Steward published his first work on aboriginal social organization in the American southwest in the 1930s: but the idea was first extensively used by archaeologists Phillip Phillips, James A. Ford and James B. Griffin in the Mississippi Valley of the United States during World War II, and by Gordon Willey in the Viru Valley of Peru in the first decades after the war.

What led to that was the implementation of a regional surface survey, also called pedestrian survey, archaeological studies not focused on a single site, but rather on an extensive area. Being able to systematically identify all the sites within a given region means archaeologists can look at not just how people lived at any one time, but rather how that pattern changed through time. Conducting regional survey means you can investigate the evolution of communities, and that's what archaeological settlement pattern studies do today.

Patterns Versus Systems

Archaeologists refer to both settlement pattern studies and settlement system studies, sometimes interchangeably. If there is a difference, and you could argue about that, it might be that pattern studies look at the observable distribution of sites, while system studies look at how the people living at those sites interacted: modern archaeology can't really do one with the other.

History of Settlement Pattern Studies

Settlement pattern studies were first conducted using regional survey, in which archaeologists systematically walked over hectares and hectares of land, typically within a given river valley. But the analysis only truly became feasible after remote sensing was developed, beginning with photographic methods such as those used by Pierre Paris at Oc Eo but now, of course, using satellite imagery and drones.

Modern settlement pattern studies combine with satellite imagery, background research, surface survey, sampling, testing, artifact analysis, radiocarbon, and other dating techniques. And, as you might imagine, after decades of research and advances in technology, one of the challenges of settlement patterns studies has a very modern ring to it: big data. Now that GPS units and artifact and environmental analysis are all intertwined, how to do you analyze the huge amounts of data that are collected?

By the end of the 1950s, regional studies had been performed in Mexico, the United States, Europe, and Mesopotamia; but they have since expanded throughout the world.

New Technologies

Although systematic settlement patterns and landscape studies are practiced in many diverse environments, before modern imaging systems, archaeologists attempting to study heavily vegetated areas were not as successful as they might have been. A variety of means to penetrate the gloom have been identified, including the use of high definition aerial photography, subsurface testing, and, if acceptable, deliberately clearing the landscape of growth. 

LiDAR (light detection and ranging), a technology used in archaeology since the turn of the 21st century, is a remote sensing technique that is conducted with lasers connected to a helicopter or drone. The lasers visually pierce the vegetative cover, mapping huge settlements and revealing previously unknown details that can be ground-truthed. Successful use of LiDAR technology has included mapping the landscapes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the Stonehenge world heritage site in England, and previously unknown Maya sites in Mesoamerica, all providing insight for regional studies of settlement patterns.

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Settlement Patterns - Studying the Evolution of Societies." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Hirst, K. Kris. (2021, February 16). Settlement Patterns - Studying the Evolution of Societies. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Settlement Patterns - Studying the Evolution of Societies." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).